The Reach Center gets reaching

Back in November, I wrote about the new Reach Center (here and here), a $3.2 million initiative to attract mathematically and scientifically inclined Maine students to math and science programs.

For a quick recap, here’s how Reach Center co-director Jan Mokros described the need and goals for the organization back in one of my stories in November:

The problem we’re addressing is that most students lose interest in these areas. About 80 percent, by the time they graduate high school, never want to take a math or science class again, so we’re losing our talent pool. Our goal is to capture them early, get them involved in science and math that’s rigorous and relevant to their own lives, and keep them interested, so by the time they’re finished [high school] they’ll want more.

And fellow Reach Center leader Jerry Pieh, from the same November article:

I hope [The Reach Center] plugs in as a coordinating element, as a partner to other organizations. It isn’t designed to create new curriculum, it’s designed more to connect students, parents and teachers with each other and with programs. … There are a number of ways to do this, and we’re just beginning to zero in on how to move down this track.

Well, Reach Center representatives took some more steps down that track this past week, holding what they described in an announcement as a “first-of-its-kind STEM education conference” in Portland. (Admittedly, I did not check the annals of STEM education worldwide to double check that this particular three-day conference was, in fact, the first of its kind — but why quibble? It was at the very least not something that happens every day.)

Experts brainstorm at the three-day STEM conference in Portland, from the Reach Center Facebook page.During the event, the Reach Center invited “education experts from Maine and around the country” to the Portland Harbor Hotel to talk about better connecting students with the types of math and science that will fuel their internal fires and create the next generation of mathematicians and scientists.

Organizations represented at the summit reportedly included Foundation for Blood Research, FIRST Robotics, University of Southern Maine, Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, Maine Department of Education, IEEE of Maine, Expeditionary Learning, Casco Bay High School, Lesley University, University of Maine System, Island Institute, Illinois Math & Science Academy, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, King Middle School, Chewonki, Maine EPSCoR, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine School of Science and Mathematics, KIDS Consortium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Science Foundation, Harvard University, Deer Isle-Stonington Science Center, The Jackson Laboratory, Boston Museum of Science, American Psychological Association, The Concord Consortium and Efficiency Maine.

At the end of the three days — on Friday — they held a “listening session” attended by leaders in the community, education and business.

Here’s what Pieh had to say after the super brainstorming event:

As far as we can tell, no one else is doing this anywhere else in the country. This conference was about getting a lot of very bright people in one room, downloading their collective expertise, testing ideas against experiences and, ultimately, creating a pathway for thousands of Maine youth to get involved with science and math programs. With input from a group of this caliber, we will get the students involved, keep them engaged, and ultimately enhance the STEM workforce in Maine.

The assembled experts, among other things, left the Reach Center brass with three general recommendations, distilled from what I imagine were hundreds of fairly specific conversation topics:

  • Provide the “connective tissue” between the many excellent existing STEM programs in Maine for students in grades 5-12
  • Develop an online clearinghouse of STEM opportunities and act as a resource for students seeking additional opportunities in STEM, including collaboration  with the University of Maine EPSCoR and others
  • Tie together consecutive experiences over several years to foster and build upon individual student interest and enthusiasm for a specific STEM topic

Reach Center leaders are now planning a spring outreach push according to those recommendations, which, frankly, sound very much like what Pieh and Mokros thought the Reach Center would be best suited doing back when I talked to them in the fall. It seems they’ve been headed down the right path since the start.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.